Pressure builds for action on income polarization
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Liberal MP Scott Brison succeeded in getting Parliament to study income inequality last spring but the goodwill has evaporated.
May 01 2013. By: Carol Goar
The story of poverty is harder to tell than it was a decade ago.
On average, low-income Canadians are doing better than they did in the 1990s. The plight of single-parent families has improved. In some parts of the country — Newfoundland, P.E.I. and Saskatchewan — significant progress has been made in reducing both the rate and depth of poverty.
But averages mask worrisome trends . Some groups are falling behind faster, facing bigger obstacles. The largest is unattached adults between the ages of 18 and 65. Caught in a low-wage labour market or unable to find work, their standard of living has fallen markedly. So have those of new immigrants and visible minorities.
This poses a challenge for anti-poverty activists. They can’t claim poverty is rising; it isn’t. They can’t claim child poverty is at record levels; it isn’t. They can’t claim Canada is developing a permanent underclass. Most people climb out of poverty within a year.
It also gives policy-makers an easy excuse to do nothing. Why should they act when the problem is solving itself? Why should they change anything when the situation is improving?
That is the contradictory story spilling out before Parliament’s finance committee. Since mid-April, it has been studying income equality.
Liberal MP Scott Brison launched the initiative. Last spring, he tabled a private member’s motion calling on the committee to take an in-depth look at the growing gap between rich and poor, which he called “one of the biggest challenges facing Canada.” Surprisingly, it was approved. Twenty-three Conservatives broke ranks.
Then the party brass stepped in. The government proposed one day of hearings. Brison, backed by the New Democrats, got it up to three days (April 16, 25 and 30). It wasn’t what he wanted, but it was a start. “We’re just scratching the surface,” he acknowledged in an interview.
As the oral testimony draws to a close — the committee also received 49 written submissions — the Liberal finance critic remains determinedly positive. He is not predicting a strong, idea-packed final report. That would be naive. But he does see value in the abbreviated study:
– The fact that he got the issue on the parliamentary agenda at all encourages him. It wouldn’t have happened without significant support from the Conservative backbenches.
– The range of witnesses — concerned bankers, doctors, academics, municipal leaders, heads of social agencies and welfare recipients — confirmed his belief that income polarization is a mainstream concern. Prime Minister Stephen Harper can’t pigeonhole bankers and physicians as fiscally irresponsible left-wingers.
– The committee’s willingness to move beyond the old arguments about whether income inequality is real and how to quantify it was a relief. These two preoccupations have stifled political debate for years.
– The effort by several witnesses to suggest reforms that fit within the government’s fiscal framework reinforced Brison’s desire to work across party lines. He highlighted three such proposals. An expansion of the working income tax benefit, introduced by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in 2007, would help struggling wage-earners lift themselves out of poverty. A low-cost adjustment to tax credits the Tories brought in to help parents pay for sports equipment, music lessons and other extracurricular activities would make them more equitable. Converting them into refundable tax credits would bring in families with no taxable income. A reordering of priorities within the aboriginal affairs department would free up money for education. By targeting dollars to aboriginal schools, Ottawa could narrow the 20-per-cent gap between the on-reserve graduation rate and the national average.
The report will be tabled on June 13.
With hindsight, Brison wishes he’d asked the committee to examine inequality of opportunity, rather than income inequality. “We’ve got to get beyond class warfare stuff. If we focus on inequality of opportunity, there is room for consensus building.”
But that is for later. For now, he is working to convince his committee colleagues to submit a unanimous report to Parliament, no matter how thin. If he fails, Brison guarantees there will be a strong dissenting report with clear, affordable recommendations.
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